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Voters message: Show us the benefits

While East County didn't have to weigh in on any bond or levy requests, May 18's regional election results are an inarguable signal that everything has changed in how taxpayers view investments in teachers and schools, or for replacing dilapidated public facilities such as unsafe bridges.

Frankly, it no longer matters how good a job a school or local government has done in the past or is doing today. It also doesn't matter whether a proposed tax appears to be a valuable idea or is being advanced for the right reasons.

If tax measures are to succeed in these economically challenged times, voters must understand clearly what direct benefits will come to taxpayers, the local economy and the community as a whole. And every measure that goes before voters must pass an urgency test that answers the question of 'why now vs. later?'

The extremely close rejection of a $548 million bond measure to upgrade most Portland school buildings and replace eight aging schools has captured the most public attention.

Voters, however, were much more convinced of the need to expand the Portland school district's local option levy to preserve the employment of as many as 200 teachers. That measure was passing relatively easily - with 58 percent in favor.

Very few measures get support

Meanwhile, throughout the Portland region, voters were equally spotty in their support of tax measures, and they were downright negative about some. Voters in Clackamas County soundly rejected a plan to raise vehicle registration fees by $5 a year to fund the county match for a new $290 million Sellwood Bridge.

Clackamas County voters also defeated a $130 million measure to upgrade classrooms and build a new technology center at Clackamas Community College. And Oregon City voters struck down a three-year, $6 million local option levy that would keep two weeks from being cut from the school year.

In Multnomah County, voters in the Parkrose School District narrowly approved a $63 million measure to replace the old Parkrose Middle School and make other local schools safer and more energy efficient.

In Washington County, the Tigard-Tualatin School District handily passed a measure to repair and weatherize schools and buy new textbooks and computers, but in the Banks School District, voters said no to a scaled-back measure to renovate schools.

These election messages are similar to what voters communicated last November when they rejected TriMet's measure to replace aging buses and provide improved service for elderly and disabled riders.

Voters will remain skeptical

In today's uncertain times, here is what's for sure: The economy remains shaky. The public is unsettled about its own future. Local residents don't know just how far their precious and limited personal funds will go. As a result, most tax measures will be a nonstarter regardless of how great the perceived need or whether the local government has a track record of success.

That's why we believe all local governments must adopt new ways of engaging voters and taxpayers, including these:

• First, don't waste a dime. Make each taxpayer dollar or fee count.

• Communicate in an ongoing, believable way about how taxes and fees are being used and their measurable result.

• Before a new tax measure or fee is considered, first ask whether the proposal can be delayed until the economy and public confidence improve.

• If a tangible connection between the use of tax dollars and taxpayers' own benefit cannot be made, don't bother to propose the measure.

• Make requests for tax dollars a personal request to actual voters. While it's important to get business leaders and elected officials to support tax measures, it's individual citizens who vote, not businesses or institutions.

• Finally, find ways to show taxpayers exactly how local governments, special districts and schools are finding ways to save money and thereby improve results and reduce the cost of government.

Everything is different today for local citizens. Things also should be different when governments make requests for taxpayer support.